Thursday, 15 September 2016

What is datsu-bôkoku? A note on Japanese environmentalism

This is just a brief note on a small curiosity, namely the word bôkoku (亡国, dead country or national death) which I've encountered a couple of times during anti-nuke demonstrations in Japan. The first time was one evening in December 2012 when I went to the weekly Friday demonstration outside the prime minister's residence (the "kantei-mae" demonstration). As I stood there with the others, a guy with sun glasses who looked like Jake in The Blues Brothers crossed the street and came walking briskly towards us, carrying a sign hanging over his stomach with the words “datsu-bôkoku” (脱亡国) written in big letters. I remember liking the expression for its touch of ambiguity. It seemed constructed in analogy with the common slogan "datsu-genpatsu" (Stop nuclear power!). Most likely, it was meant to meant something like "stop the national death" or "leave behind the state of being a dead country". Literally, however, it could be taken to mean the provocative "Leave (or get out of) the dead country!". In other words, it could be taken to mean either to revive the country or to leave it!

Considering that many people had left the Fukushima-region and even Tokyo itself in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, turning themselves into "nuclear refugees", this double meaning may very well have been intended. It really corresponded to a debate going on in the anti-nuke movement, between those who left and those who chose to stay on. Leaving, some argued, was the only sensible option. It meant prioritizing life and safety, regardless of the government's assertions. It was also connected to the "zero becquerel"-slogan, the determination not to tolerate any radiation (cf. Yabu 2012a, 2012b). Staying, by contrast, was urged by them who saw a value in preserving or rebuilding the communities and economies of the Fukushima region.

The term "bôkoku" itself has an interesting history in the Japanese environmental movement. As I read through Robert Stolz' Bad Water: Nature, Pollution, and Politics in Japan, 1870-1950 (Duke University Press, 2014), I realized that its use in anti-nuke activism must be a reference to Tanaka Shôzô, known as the father of Japanese environmentalism and famous for his engagements in the protests against the Ashio copper mine pollution and his solidarity with the Yanaka villagers. It appears that he developed his ideas on bôkoku in his Diet speeches in 1900, following the so-called Kawamata Incident in which the police had clashed with protesters marching to Tokyo (see Strong 1995: 115f for a vivid description). In the incident more then 50 protesters were injured and 69 were arrested. Many others fled. Following this violent suppression Tanaka made a speech in which he put the following question to the prime minister:
To kill the people is to kill the nation. To despise the law is to despise the nation. This is the end of the nation. If its resources are abused, its people killed, and its laws overturned, no country can survive. What will the government do about it? (quoted in Strong 1995: 119)
As Stolz points out, Tanaka saw the incident as evidence that the government had been overrun by private interests, above all the Furukawa zaibatsu running the mine. The police had become servants of private gain and hence Japan had ceased to exist. Because of this, the polluted lands were now “lawless regions”, stripped of the rights granted by the constitution (Stolz 2014: 71). "Bôkoku", in other words, meant that the ideal of the country enshrined in the constitution had died, betrayed by the government and the state. The victims of this betrayal were the people, the rivers and the land.

Tanaka's drawing (from Stolz 2014:73)
Later in 1900 Tanaka wrote a poem on bôkoku in a letter to a fellow activist along with a drawing showing a dancing skeleton next to a pile of corpses fed on by dogs and demons. He entitled the poem “The Mark of the National Death” (Bôkoku no ato):
The spirit in the hearts of governance, justice, and law has died
There are those eaten by dogs
and those reduced to dancing skeletons
All that remains for the starving survivors is death
The mark of bôkoku.
(quoted in Stolz 2014: 73)
Interestingly, the idea of death also occurs in other examples of political rhetoric during the Ashio protests. For instance, some of the pollution victims began calling themselves “himei no shisha” (非命の死者), himei standing for the opposite or negation of the Confucian tenmei or “Heaven’s decree” (ibid. 72). Similar self-designations also appeared in later episodes of the environmental movement, such as in the protests against the Minamata mercury poisoning.

But maybe I'm wrong. To some people, the term bôkoku doesn't seem to connote Tanaka Shôzô. Another occasion when I encountered the term was in 2015. Again I was at the weekly Friday demonstration, where I met a man with a Hinomaru flag and a sign saying "Nuclear power is the energy of bôkoku" (「原子力は亡国のエネルギー」). When I expressed interest in the slogan, he explained that the meaning was that nuclear power would ruin the country. To my surprise he said that he had taken the word bôkoku from Mao Zedong, who had apparently once said that Mahjong would ruin China (「麻雀は亡国の遊戯」).   


Stolz, Robert (2014) Bad Water: Nature, Pollution, and Politics in Japan, 1870-1950, Durham: Duke University Press.

Strong, Kenneth (1995[1977]) Ox against the storm: a biography of Tanaka Shozo - Japan's conservationist pioneer, Folkestone, Kent: Japan Library.

Yabu, Shirô (2012a) Hōshanō o kue to iu nara sonna shakai wa iranai, zero bekureru-ha sengen, Tokyo: Shinhyōsha.

Yabu, Shirô (2012b) 3.12 no shisō, Tokyo: Ibunsha.

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